ANC policies destroyed labs

18 March 2011 – David Klatzow writes a letter to the Mail and Guardian, in response to Raphaely’s article on the meltdown of South Africa’s forensic labs.

I read with some cynicism and a sense of “I told you so” the article by Carolyn Raphaely titled “Toxic meltdown at forensic labs” (February 18). Other senior forensic scientists in this country and I have been warning about this problem for five or more years.

In fact, the situation is so bad that Western Cape Premier Helen Zille asked my advice in setting up a private forensic laboratory to deal with the backlogs. Transport MEC Robin Carlisle has become so despondent with the poor service of the health department’s blood-alcohol laboratories that he has, or is trying to, abandon laboratory tests for the less satisfactory Dräger breath-testing machine.

Raphaely says it all again. The department of health’s blood-alcohol laboratories have been in a shambles for about 10 years and deterioration continues unabated. The quality of many analyses is so bad they are of no use in court. The Salt River Mortuary in Cape Town is so far behind in toxicology analyses that senior staff are near despair. It is not much better in the rest of the country. All these analyses are expected to be done expertly, expeditiously and accurately by the state. The outcome of criminal trials depends on them. But they are not done expeditiously and accurately.

Aggressive affirmative action is one cause — the practice of giving jobs to people who are not competent to do the work, but who were previously disadvantaged. I have no problem with affirmative action, but I have a very real problem with its aggressive brother. When Michael Kokot was in charge of the Johannesburg Health ­Chemical Laboratory he was forced by the then health minister to appoint only young, black female graduates. Most of these were recent graduates. Each analyst was expected to complete 10 to 12 toxicology cases per month. Very soon productivity plummeted to two to three a month. Kokot resigned.

Dr Neels Viljoen, one of the finest forensic scientists in this country, resigned for much the same reason. He was expected to appoint people who had scored 6% and lower in a test set to check the chemistry knowledge of applicants to vacancies in the central police forensic laboratory in Pretoria. There, too, several million rands’ worth of cocaine went missing, never to be found. I am not aware of any action taken to deal with that oversight. Strike action by the staff of this central lab has also compromised forensic work at the laboratory.

Read the full letter here.

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